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Gist by the Numbers: Achievement Gap Failing to Improve

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Test scores are up. So are graduation rates. But the gap between white students and those who are minorities, have disabilities, or are not native English speakers has either stagnated or worsened in the four years that Deborah Gist has been at the helm of the Rhode Island Education Department.

Students overall are doing better at school than they were before summer 2009, when Gist arrived. The improvement in test scores and other measures, however, has been modest. The four-year graduation rate went up about one percent to 77 percent. The number of students in all grades passing the NECAP math test is four percentage points higher, on average, than four years ago. The average reading score is up five points. (See below tables.)

But the statewide picture becomes more complicated when viewed district-by-district. “It’s kind of a mixed bag,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

He contrasted districts like Smithfield—where NECAP math scores among eleventh graders leapt forward by 23 percent from 2011 to 2012—with urban ones like Central Falls and Woonsocket, where he said scores have either stagnated or seen marginal improvement. In Central Falls, math scores for all grades dropped by three percent between 2011 and 2012. In Woonsocket they increased by one percent.

“Changing educational performance is like turning a battleship,” said Tim Ryan, executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association. “It’s not something you can see immediate results from in a short period of time.”

Achievement gap getting wider for some

But some question whether the state is even turning in the right direction. The state may be seeing gains with average students, but three key groups of students are being left behind—those with disabilities, non-native English speakers, and low-income students who don’t read at grade level, said Jean Ann Guliano, a former school committee member in East Greenwich and a one-time Moderate Party candidate for lieutenant governor.

“In fact, the gap seems to be getting wider,” said Guliano, a parent of a special-needs child.

In 2008, white students in all grades were 76 proficient on the reading NECAP test against 30 percent for students with learning disabilities, a gap of 46 points. By 2012, white students were scoring at 82 percent proficient while students with disabilities were 29 percent, a 53-point gap.

The achievement gap widened in four other areas during those four years:

■ NECAP reading: the white to non-native English speaker gap increased from 55 to 57 points
■ NECAP math: the white to learning disability gap increased from 40 to 50 points
■ NECAP math: the white to non-native English speaker gap increased from 44 to 48 points
■ NECAP math: the white to black gap inched up from 30 to 31 points

In two areas, the gap barely budged, dipping by a point for Hispanic and low-income students on the reading NECAP. Over four years, there was no change in the white-to-Hispanic and white-to-low-income gaps on the math NECAP.

Those gaps widened even as students in many of the non-white students groups still performed better. In fact, between 2008 and 2012, every single group improved except one: students with disabilities on the math NECAP. Nonetheless, the improvement in other groups often did not keep pace with white students. (See below tables.)

“Quite frankly, I think superintendent salaries have gone up more than real test scores,” said Jim McGwin, head of the North Kingstown Taxpayers Organization, who has specialized in school finance issues.

“We’re not preparing kids in Rhode Island for vocations,” McGwin added. “They’re being left behind.” He sees the same problem for college-bound students, noting the high numbers of students at CCRI who take remedial math, reading, and writing courses. As much as two-thirds need remedial work.

Race to the Top, but for whom?

Ryan praised Gist for securing what was initially $75 million in federal Race to the Top funds, to help align curriculum, teacher training, assessments, and teacher evaluations. “I think it sets the stage for a lot of improvement,” Ryan said.

But Guliano, who backed the Race to the Top while on the school committee, says the very students it’s meant to help—those students who face some kind of disadvantage—are missing out on all the gains being made by students statewide. “That has gotten lost in all this reform stuff,” Guliano said.

She says the NECAP is not an accurate or fair measure of performance for some students, especially those with disabilities. And, as the gap widens between those students and others, they are being penalized for their poor performance, now that the NECAP is being made a graduation requirement, Guliano said. “It’s just a horrible state of affairs for these particular kids,” she said.

Frank Flynn, the head of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, said the use of the NECAP as graduation requirement will have a negative impact on graduation rates, reversing the small gains the state has made in recent years.

Guliano said the state is expecting too much out of the NECAP, using it not only to measure student performance, but also how their teachers are doing. “The emperor has no clothes, so to speak, when it comes to standardized tests,” Guliano said.

Flynn said the state is still striving for the best way to improve the quality of education for all students. “I don’t think we’ve really found the best way to do that at this point,” he said.

State fails to meet 32 out of 33 goals

The Rhode Island Department of Education, at the behest of Gist, has set 33 targets for statewide student performance. The bulk of them are related to closing the achievement gap. A few involve graduation rates and how students do after high school.

In 2012, the state reached just one out of those 33 targets: 75.7 percent of high school graduates finished one year of college within two years of enrolling in it. The goal for that year had been 65 percent.

“Our biggest challenge remains the persistent achievement gaps. In 2009, Commissioner Gist established the very ambitious goal of reducing achievement gaps by 50 percent by 2015,” said RIDE spokesman Elliot Kreiger. “[W]e have made progress on closing many of these achievement gaps, but certainly not at the rate we need to see to meet the 2015 goals.”

Even though the state fell short, it saw progress on about a third of those goals. (See below list of all the goals.) Overall, the gaps have narrowed in 11 areas, according to a RIDE report. In previous years, however, the state met more of its targets. In 2010, 14 out of the 33 goals were met.

Flynn declined to explicitly criticize Gist for not meeting the goals she has set for herself, even though he noted that the new evaluation system she has promoted puts teachers at risk of negative evaluations if their students do not meet the so-called Student Learning Objectives, rather than measuring them by whether students simply improved. Instead, Flynn said educators across the board should be evaluated by whether their students showed any improvement.

But others said Gist, whose contract has come up for renewal, should be judged in the same way that she wants teachers judged. “I fully support judging the Commissioner by the same standards she has set for the schools and the teachers in them,” said Tom Sgouros, a progressive blogger.

“Judging Gist by the same standard teachers are being judged by in the new evaluation system, she would get an overwhelmingly negative mark,” he added.

By national standards, RI students improve

Some argue that the NAEP test, which is administered every two years to fourth and eighth graders across the country, is a better standard with which to gauge how Rhode Island students are doing. Because it offers one yardstick against which to measure all students, it is known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

These test results reinforce what the NECAP shows: overall, Ocean State students are improving. In 2011, for the first time, Rhode Island fourth and eighth graders were “at or above the national average” the math and reading tests, noted RIDE spokesman Elliot Krieger. (See charts for more.)

“The NAEP data show that performance is better now than it was when she arrived. But they also show that this is just a continuation of improvement that began years before,” said Tom Sgouros, who has written frequently on testing issues.

For example, between 2005 and 2009, the number of eighth graders scoring proficient on the math NAEP increased from 23 to 28 percent. For fourth graders, the percent proficient went from 31 to 39 during the same period.

“I don’t see how the Commissioner’s policies could really have had much at all to do with any improvement. For the most part, the important policies associated with her have little to do with providing professional development or increasing the quality or richness of instruction, and that’s the source of improvement,” Sgouros added. “Her policies have to do with measurements and demands for performance to meet arbitrary thresholds. She has confused helping schools achieve with demanding that they do.”

Other bright spots

Test scores receive much of the attention, but there are a number of other measures of how students are doing. Krieger provided GoLocalProv with a May 20 RIDE report, simply titled “Results,” which highlighted a number of other positive indicators, including increased use of the AP test and improvements in graduation rates.

In 2012, 3,400 students participated in the Advanced Placement program, which allows students to earn college credits in high school. The number taking the test that year was up 11.4 percent, capping a five-year trend of increased participation. Only six state high schools did not have any AP participation, according to the report.

In addition to the one-point increase in the four-year rate, the five-year graduation rate bumped up by four points to 81 percent. The report said it was the “highest point ever” using the current system of measuring the rate.

“These achievements and challenges aside, Commissioner Gist is most proud that, under her leadership, Rhode Island has put in place many new policies and initiatives that will improve teaching and learning for years to come,” Krieger said. (Gist was not available for an interview.)

Krieger also provided a list of about 20 new policies and initiatives begun under Gist. They included: annual teacher evaluations, an end to seniority as the “sole basis” for staffing decisions, an induction program to aid new teachers, a new certification system for teachers, the transitioning of more than 6,000 educators to the Common Core standards, alignment of curriculum with the Common Core, the new statewide education funding formula, and the creation of a “performance-management system” for RIDE staff.

Stephen Beale can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews


Note: The first two tables show NECAP results for reading and math. The third table is the list of RIDE goals for student performance. The numbers listed are percentages. The NECAP was taken in the fall of each listed year. For example, the numbers for 2012 would correspond to the 2012-2013 school year.
Key: LEP = Limited English Proficiency. IEP = Individual Education Plan (refers to students with disabilities in special education).
Source: Rhode Island Department of Education.


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and yet no one looks to hold Superintendent Gallo in CF accountable!

Comment #1 by barnaby morse on 2013 05 23

Can we have some stats on social promotions?

Comment #2 by Chris MacWilliams on 2013 05 23

Keep in mind that certain cultures don't hold education in high regard. That's not a Rhode Island thing. Settling for modest gains in poor urban districts might be the only way.

Comment #3 by David Beagle on 2013 05 23

Neither Gist nor the teachers can make some parent(s) care about their children or their children's education. Despite the prejudicial title this article shows that Rhode Island is improving faster than most of the country. As long as we are losing students that speak english and replace them with ESL students the numbers will improve slowly. No mention of the changing demographics of the state. I guess it doesn't fit Mr. Beale's narrative.

Comment #4 by Redd Ratt on 2013 05 23

The AP test participation is a farce. The reason for the increased number of people taking it is many high schools require that you take the test if you sign up for the class. That wasn't always the case. So in effect we are forcing Rhode Islanders to spend their money with a New Jersey firm (ETS Educational Testing Services) to make our stats look better. This is a terrible policy.

Comment #5 by Matthew Guerra on 2013 05 23

GIST NEEDS TO GO she hasnt done a thing to help this states education system.

Comment #6 by robert lamarre jr on 2013 05 23

As a parent and a Rhode Islander I have long been troubled by the performance of our schools. Looking at the overall data, it would appear that Gist's initiatives and policies are slowly turning things around. As for teacher's reviews, I have little sympathy for their opposition to being reviewed, those of us who work in the private sector are quite familiar with performance reviews and the results of poor performance.

I believe we need to stay the course and keep Gist in her position.

Comment #7 by Doug MacPherson on 2013 05 23

What needs to go-- are the teacher unions. They resist almost any effort for improvement. Their first priority is more money for union dues so the union bosses can spend all their time at the statehouse lobbying for more, more and more money even though RI's per pupil K-12 education costs are 2nd or 3rd highest in the country according to the NEA's own annual research studies--Rankings & Estimates (goggle it). I bet we'd see dramatic improvement if there were no unions in K-12 education.

as for disabled or ESL kids, maybe there should be a separate NECAP test for them. They might be making advances in their educational performance, but not at the same rate as other non-disadvantaged students. it doesn't seem fair to use one test for every student.

Comment #8 by robert benson on 2013 05 23

Hey Robert, why bet, google it and educate us.

Comment #9 by tom brady on 2013 05 23

see this New York Post article: www.nypost.com/p/news/local/uft_charter_fools_cAxPCQ8XNrklVMSdAekQvL. R.B.

Comment #10 by robert benson on 2013 05 23


Comment #11 by Chris Caldwell on 2013 05 24

Nothing will change in education in RI because Gist is focusing on the teachers, who are NOT the problem. The problem are parents who fail to teach their children to respect, to value learning and BEHAVE. Unfortunately, many children act like animals in school, swearing at the teacher, throwing objects at other students, refusing to do work or stay in their seat. In fact, one substitute who worked in our school told the principal that the kids in the school were animals and she would never return. Also, Robert doesn't seem to understand that disabled children, English language learners, and behavior problems are placed in regular classrooms. Talk about a toxic mix. Why don't we put cameras in every classroom so people would know what REALLY goes on. Oh no, we can't do that: it would violate the students' rights. I will be the first teacher to volunteer to have the camera placed in my class.

Comment #12 by Ed Jucation on 2013 05 24

Ed J:
You are right that a good part of the blame for the problems in our school systems lies with parents who either don't value the usefulness of education or demand that their children do. But, i believe Gist is focusing on student performance, and you can't measure performance with out some type of standardized measurement system.

another problem plaguing R.I. is that we are in the information age, a time when data is converted to information which is used to govern business decisions and almost everything else we do. Yet, our K-12 school material can't keep up with the rapid pace of technology. So instead of turning out kids who can really make contributions in this info age, we are turning out kids who excelled in sports and are always looking for an easy way out. i don't have the answer to these problems, but i can't fault Gist for trying hard to solve them.

Comment #13 by robert benson on 2013 05 24

Education for all to get equal results is not feasible.
If the majority of students perform better, that has to be the real goal.
To hold back this group to try to do the impossible of bringing the gap between white students and those who are minorities, have disabilities, or are not native English speakers has been the whole problem in RI education.
Rather than dilute our complete educational system to teach everyone the same and test them the same there should be testing by grouping. There are special classes and support for English language, disability and minorities that don't have the basics; test them for their grouping. Stop this one education for all mentality.

Comment #14 by Gary Arnold on 2013 05 24

Ask any teacher who has been in the classroom for more than 15 years about the exponential increase in children of all races with neurological based diagnoses like Autism requiring special education. Our teachers rise to this challenge every day. The system they work in, however, does everything it can to make their jobs to accommodate and teach these diverse learners nearly impossible.

Comment #15 by Deborah OLeary on 2013 05 24

What total nonsense. Passing the NECAP, or any test, prepares kids to do what? Most won’t go to college of finish because they can’t afford it, or because they don’t see any value in it.
You give them the NECAP to prepare them for service jobs, CNAs or as paper pushers at Third World wages?
Where are all these high-tech jobs they talk about? And how do these tests prepare kids for these jobs, anyway? They don’t.
We have so many college graduates that are unemployed or underemployed, and employers say they can’t find qualified workers.
The question is what are these “reforms” really about?

Comment #16 by Johnny cakes on 2013 05 24

I hear it all the time "Government should be run like a profitable business runs where everyone is held to their results which is the true value of any employee".

So let's get off the comments that she's trying, she got 75M from the Fed, etc. The true measure is what she has accomplished in three years to solve the problems with the RI educational system. So with an overall improvement of 1% in the measures she chooses to use i.e. test scores and after 3 years of trying to do better she has failed miserably. She prefers to blame the teachers for her lack of leadership....a popular move since she plays into the propensity for the general public to bash teachers rather than taking the more difficult road of understanding exactly what the problems are. In other words she is a good politician who knows how to muddy the waters in her favor and play the public for fools who are so easily sucked in.

One teacher here on this thread said they would love it if cameras were installed in classrooms. That would be a real eye opener since it is disgusting just how much a teacher has to take from students who know the principal (A final authority) will do nothing to support the proper punishment. Basically, in some instances the principal will fail to have the teacher's back....quite the opposite in fact. You should make yourself aware of some of the problems Gist's rules have caused. For example, principals are evaluated by overall attendance and on it's face it might appear to be a valid assessment. However it strongly encourages the principal to not expell or suspend students because the attendance would then drop and negatively impact them. So unless the student physically attacks a teacher they won't see any meaningful punishment whatsoever....and they know all about that. I could go on listing many similar issues directly attributable to RIDOE and Gist's mishandlings. It might enlighten some of the less cerebral who simply think it's all the teacher's fault but call me jaded because I think too many are happy to wrap it all up in a neat little package they can put their small minds around. Ironically those same people would also agree with my firat premise that government should be run like a good business..... : )

Comment #17 by Thoughtful One on 2013 05 24

Does anyone know any major urban area that is closing the achievement gap? Significantly.

Comment #18 by Kati Loreen on 2013 05 24

thoughtful one:
Where do you get the 1% improvement for Gist? use the difference between 2008 and 2012, not the difference between 2011 and 2012. You'll see:
White: Math Proficient went from 61 to 67!
White: Reading Proficiency went from 76 to 82!

Just because you don't like what she is doing, don't use the numbers to criticize her. You just make yourself look less credible.

Comment #19 by robert benson on 2013 05 24

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.